I spent quite a bit of time thinking about The Source. (Seemingly a waste of time, I know.) In specific, I considered The Source in relation to Joe, Methos, Duncan and the triangle that is their relationship. While some of this contemplation has to do with my own versions of these guys, the overarching thoughts have nothing to do with my writing; they are general ruminations about what the larger meanings of The Source are (or could have been).
One of my biggest peeves (aside from the villain having no menace, the "I want a baby" storyline making no sense, and the entire thing seeming to have no real point by not answering any questions and actually making more of them) has to do with Joe's death. Yes, I am a big Joe fan. However, my frustration about them killing his character isn't what one might think.
Let me explain.
I believe in killing your characters. Characters in any story should have specific reasons for existing, be they for the development of the plot or the growth of other characters. Once those reasons have run their course, you should kill the character. You should, in particular, do this when the character is one who is well loved, important to your hero or heroine, and/or is a major part of the story line. Having said this, the death of a central character should never be pointless. Senseless? Perhaps. Avoidable but done anyway? More than likely. However, every death should have a point. It may be that the point is the fact that, as part of the plot, the individual must die. It may be convenient for the character sacrifice themselves for the good of others. It may be important for the character to die and motivate another character to action. It may even be that a character dies for no real apparent reason at all only to have the death effect the remaining character(s) so deeply that it triggers drastic internal emotional changes not apparent until three books later. But, to kill a major character and have it not only do nothing to advance the plot but also have no effect on other characters in relation to character growth is, in my book, bad writing. It is a waste of a good opportunity and gives your reader (or in the case of The Source, the viewer) a sense of anger. They feel they have been taken on a ride somewhere under false pretense. So, by all means kill your characters. Kill them all! Let the bad guys win! (I love it when the bad guys win and the good guys have to tuck tail and run!) Just have a point when you do.
Were I the one who sat down to pen a new Highlander movie, I would have killed Joe. I love Joe. I love him to pieces. Hell, I adore Jim Byrnes! He is a wonderful actor, a fantastic musician, and one hell of a man. Joe, however, is too important to Duncan and Methos. Not only that, but he's mortal and his entire life revolves around Duncan like a planet around a sun. That isn't to say Joe doesn't have other interests, abilities, or things in his life, but Duncan is his hero. He is, as David A. has said in the past, a stand-in for the audience. He is the man who Watches. He is also the man who says there is a time when you have to do more than watch. He is the one who admires Mac in the way the show/writers wanted the audience to admire Mac.
Now, because he's mortal, because he's so important to two of the major characters, because Jim isn't getting any younger, and because the storyline indicates that Duncan has "fallen from grace" (in addition to the fact that Joe no longer has the organization to which he devoted his life as his rock); you need to kill him. Joe has too much potential in death for a good writer not to see how he can be used to bring out the best and the worst in the two remaining Immortals. Joe, Methos, and Duncan are a tripod -- that most stable of all constructions. However, if you remove one of the legs, the tripod will not stand no matter what you do. They were like Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. My favorite Star Trek movie is The Wrath of Khan and one of the major reasons for this is the fact that they killed Spock. To this day when I watch the death scene, I cry. That's what killing a major character should be. It should be gut wrenching for the other characters and gut wrenching for the reader/viewer. And while Joe's death in The Source is very sad indeed, there is an element missing.
Or is there?
I kept focusing on the fact that Duncan wanted to walk away from "The Quest" after Joe's death. The director (and writer(s)) made a point of having Joe only speak to Duncan as he died. In addition, what Joe said to Duncan -- his assertion that Duncan was his best friend, his insistence that being Duncan's Watcher was the greatest honor of his life, and his declaration to Mac that it was his destiny to be the one -- made it seem as if Joe's death should be tied to Duncan's part in the quest. But, after a lot of thought, I think I have figured out that Joe's death is not about Duncan at all.
It's about Methos.
If you look at Joe's death not from the perspective of the effect it has on Duncan directly but from the perspective of the effect it has on him as a result of its effect on Methos, Joe's death begins to have meaning. At the end of the movie, Duncan must reject violence and revenge. The Guardian even tries to use Joe's death against Duncan. As a result, Joe's death becomes a kind of liability for the hero -- one more reason I kept fixating on Joe's death as pointless. However, in order for Duncan to get to that point, Methos also has a decision to make. The story implies that had they both arrived at the location of the Source, history would have repeated itself. The scenario of the Guardian and Elder would have been perpetuated. By his own admission, Methos wanted to be the one. In the series he purported to be only out for himself. Time and again he professed a philosophy of "what's in it for me." Joe calls him a calculating son-of-a-bitch with good reason. Fanon Methos is by turns crafty, self-absorbed, ruthless, shrewd, devious, manipulative, and even periodically egocentric. He's always got a plan within a plan; a back door built in, and isn't above being underhanded if it gives him the advantage. Mind you, he'll also put himself on the line for a friend -- to a point. He's a likely to disappear as hold your hand and support you in your time of need. He'll drink your beer and hack your computer as fast as he'll shoot you in the back for your own good or take a head on your behalf. Methos is, first and foremost, self-serving. That doesn't mean he doesn't love. It doesn't mean he won't give, or care, or feel. But, Methos always has an agenda of some kind -- even when that agenda is protection of someone he cares about.
Now, with all that in mind, who is the person who makes the biggest change because of Joe's death? Methos. He even implies this himself at the end of the movie before he leaves Duncan and draws away the nutcases pursuing them. You have to ask yourself, if Methos wanted to be the one, what made him change his mind? Yes, Duncan has always been, "too important to lose," and, "the best he's seen," but I think Methos has a fundamental shift when Joe dies. He goads Duncan into an attempt to take his head on holy ground. Why? Because Duncan was going to leave the Quest and walk away instead of being the man Joe wanted him to be. When the others are focused on the stars and the quest, Methos is grieving at Joe's grave. Is it Peter Wingfield acting his socks off simply because he, as the man who plays the character, thinks this is something Methos would do, or is it a subtle tell (perhaps one that wasn't supposed to be so subtle) that Joe's death was meant to change him? Finally, when Methos rides away and into danger leaving Mac to find Anna, he leaves his sword behind. I think all of us would agree that leaving the Ivanhoe was something the "old" Methos would never do. But here he is, turning his back on the quest, on his own wants, and on his life as an Immortal in both a tangible and symbolic way.
And he does so while speaking of Joe.
We don't know which of the Immortals instigated the search for the Source or why. We don't know why that particular group came together or how it happened. Still, Methos seems to have some knowledge or understanding at the start that the others did not. Some have said they thought that the way scenes were played that Joe and Methos seemed estranged or at odds. I never picked up that kind of vibe. I did, however, get the clear impression that Joe and Methos had been in regular contact and that Methos had kept him apprised of his search for the Source. Why would Methos do that? Why would he have involved a mortal in Immortal business? Because of MacLeod? When the Guardian attacks Joe, it is Methos who runs off in hot pursuit clearly itching to fight the thing that harmed his friend. When Joe dies -- when he turns and gives the last of himself to Duncan -- Methos is so hurt can't listen and walks away.
I have a theory. I think a part of Methos died with Joe. I think that's what Joe's death was really all about: about making Methos realize that there comes a time when the price of Immortality, the price of the Prize, is too high. I think when he is kneeling beside Joe's grave he finally has a moment when he no longer wants to live forever -- that the idea of living with Joe's death on his conscience and then being forced to fight Mac and take the head of a good friend in order to win, is more than he can stand. Just as Mac, in the end, shows the "redeeming quality" of mercy, so Methos shows the "redeeming quality" of self-sacrifice -- the same redeeming quality that took Joe from them. A quality which, until this point, Methos rarely (if ever) exhibited. Had Methos not made this choice, disaster would have been the result. Even if he had been able to take Duncan's head (and we all know that wouldn't have happened because the show is called "Highlander"), he would have had to fight the Guardian. And let's face it, after Joe's death there is no way in hell Methos would have shown mercy to that thing. He would have gleefully hacked him into tiny bits and then become doomed.
So, while I'm still not happy about Joe dying and think they could have done it better, I'm not quite as upset as I was. Joe's death is no longer pointless to me. While Joe thought what he was doing was protecting and helping MacLeod, what he was really doing was saving Methos' soul.
I'm OK with that. I think Joe would be too.
This was originally shared as a post on my Live Journal after the "first cut" of The Source was released on DVD in Russia. Changes in the final edit have not altered my theory.
If you have not seen The Source some of this might be a little confusing as it takes for granted the reader has watched at least one version of the film. Additionally, the whole thing is full of "spoilers."